Respect, trust, care and professionalism

September 2021

It’s September and a new generation of hopeful students are taking the first steps along their path to becoming a nurse. In Thunder Bay, that path has two starting points. They can take the BScN program at Lakehead University and become a registered nurse, or they can attend Confederation College and become a registered practical nurse. This was not always the case. When I graduated from the nursing program at Confederation College back in the eighties, I was a registered nurse, but the move to having all registered nurses go the way of a Bachelor of Nursing degree was already in the works. Go further back and the scholastic road to a career in nursing was different yet.

Back in 1904, St. Joseph’s hospital in Port Arthur initiated a nursing program, founded on the biblical themes of faith, hope and charity. Three years later, six graduates had completed their training. Not to be left behind, McKellar hospital in Fort William also instituted a nursing program in 1904, with two graduates in 1907. Port Arthur General Hospital, originally named the “Railway, Marine and General Hospital” opened in 1909 and launched its own nursing program the same year. Its first graduation ceremony on May 28th, 1912 celebrating seven new fully trained nurses.

Each of these programs was residential. Initially, the students lived, studied and worked in the hospitals. It was more of a traditional apprenticeship situation in the early years, with the students providing much of the labour as they learned. They did not pay tuition, nor were they paid for their long hours of labour. This changed in later years, as their training involved more class time. Living quarters for the student nurses were built and expanded as each hospital grew, with the division of study and clinical time gradually growing to resemble the programs of today. Each hospital had its own required uniform, with different caps and cap ribbons indicating level of training.

I had the privilege of interviewing Norma “Randi” Vescio, who graduated along with nine others in 1948 from the St. Joe’s program. Back then, the students labored year-round, with just three weeks vacation time in summer. They worked 12 hour days, with a half day off on Sundays. Randi recalled, “We had a couple of hours of free time most days. It was pretty strict. You couldn’t even sit on your bed in your spare time. We had surprise inspections of our quarters.” She recalled with a smile, occasions of pilfering onions which were stored in the attic, in order to make onion sandwiches for a late night snack. Randi lived in one of the two residential houses, the Neelin Homestead on Court St. Ridge purchased in 1928, or the Conmee Residence purchased shortly thereafter.

In 1955 a new five story building was constructed with a closed-in tunnel connecting it to the hospital. St. Joseph’s Hospital’s School of Nursing now boasted 108 beds for nursing students, classrooms, offices, a demonstration room, science lab and library. A more balanced approach to the student’s days was reflected in the combination auditorium/gym, drama and glee clubs, two lounges, and a rumpus room.

Evelyn Gilson (B.A; HonsBScn:Master Ed Administration) graduated from the St. Joe’s program in 1965 and is full of praise of the in-depth training she received.

“We were also taught about morality, respect, trust, exemplary quality care and professionalism.” said Gilson, further sharing that 1962 began with 50 students, two of which were men. 1st year was filled with orientations, “rules and more rules”. At the end of the first year and completion of basic nursing theory, 35 students remained in the program. First year students wore white caps with no ribbon. Second and third years had blue or gold stripes indicating the stage of training.

Patricia Weston was part of the last graduating class from the Port Arthur General Hospital in 1970. The residence was located in two wings built off the hospital. Students worked Monday through Friday with weekends off and a month off during the summer. Classes held at Lakehead University and in residence initially outweighed the clinical time on the wards. By third year, that was reversed, with only one day a week in class and the rest on the wards. Patricia recalled the P.A.G.H. uniform, “We wore a blue under-dress, with added starched collar and cuffs, and a white wrap-around apron, with a starched bib. Black stockings and black laced up brogue shoes. We were on probation for the first 3 months, after which we wore a plain white cap. Second year was a red band and third year a blue band. We had a black band for graduation.”

Joanne Beange was a graduate from the last year of the McKellar program in 1970. At that time the nursing students lived in Paterson Hall, which was located on the corner of Arthur and Archibald streets and appreciated the underground tunnel to the hospital come winter! Each floor had communal bathrooms and kitchens, although most meals were taken in the hospital cafeteria.

“There was an auditorium with a piano and we used it for group parties, fashion shows, etc. There was also a large classroom where we had our classes.

We had two classes on the University campus and we were taken there by taxi.” The uniforms were provided and similar to the other hospitals, a light blue with a starched white
apron for dress occasions, white stockings and shoes.

First year students had a roommate. Their white caps had no year-indicating ribbon but boasted a series of intricate pleats fastened with straight pins. Second year students got their own room and a yellow ribbon for their cap. Third year students wore caps with blue ribbons. By third year, most school hours were spent on the wards, evening and night shifts were introduced, and by the end of the year, the students were able to take over the role of head nurse under supervision and run a ward.

In 1967 the Lakehead Regional School of Nursing opened its doors. Initially located at the Avila Center, it was moved to the newly constructed building on campus in September of 1971. The original schools of nursing had been phased out. They served their purpose well and left many memories behind.

Kim Kilgour is a wife, mother of three, retired dental hygienist and gardening enthusiast.

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